MySpace might be bigger — or not

Like my old-media colleague Mark Evans, I’m skeptical of the somewhat boosterish (to put it mildly) headlines about the growth of MySpace, and how it is now supposedly a larger Internet property than Yahoo, according to figures from Internet traffic-tracking firm Hitwise. And yet, the numbers from Comscore/Media Metrix and Nielsen/NetRatings don’t show anything like that — at least not when it comes to unique visitors.

According to a statement from Hitwise about methodology, the company uses a “network-centric” measuring process, in which traffic data is collected directly from ISPs using the company’s proprietary software. Other tracking services such as Comscore and Nielsen measure traffic based on software that users install (Alexa uses this method as well), phone surveys and/or through software trackers installed at websites directly. Naturally, Hitwise says its way is better.

The Hitwise release about MySpace (which was just for the first two weeks of July) didn’t give specific numbers for the social-networking service. Instead, it said that MySpace’s “market share of visits” was higher than Yahoo’s at 4.46 per cent. It’s not clear what that phrase refers to, but it appears to be a lot closer to raw hits than it is to unique visitors. Part of the problem seems to be that Hitwise only tracked Yahoo’s email domain, and left out its search and portal properties. According to Yahoo, it had 129 million unique visitors in June (for Yahoo’s search, email and web properties), and MySpace had 52 million.

I hate to rehash something that I thought we had all hoisted aboard during the first Web bubble, but raw traffic is a crappy measure of anything (and has been criticized for having a design that boosts page-hit counts). That’s why unique visitors and other metrics get used more often. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop newspapers — and blogs, unfortunately — from trumpeting the “XYZ Corp. is the biggest!” headlines whenever there’s a slow news day.

For an interesting look at the differences between Hitwise numbers and those from ComScore/Media Metrix and Nielsen/Net Ratings, check out this comment from Flickr founder Stewart Butterfield on a recent post at Paul Kedrosky’s blog.

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